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Local Authority Expenditure

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 25 November 2010

10. What recent steps he has taken to increase transparency and accountability in local government spending. (26208)

We are replacing bureaucratic accountability to central Government with democratic accountability. People should be able to hold their local council to account over the taxes it spends. More and more local authorities are publishing details of spending items of more than £500 online. Next month, I will consult on a code of recommended practice for local authorities, which will address issues such as scope, formatting and timings for publishing data.

Although I do not want to add to the administrative burdens of local authorities, it would be useful to have data against which performance, quality and reach of services, and efficiency could be measured. What tools will be made available to this House and the public to do that?

It is most important that we continue to press ahead with the agenda and, in particular, with the public right to know how money is being spent. It is no use talking about cuts in public spending and cuts to front-line services when we find that we have excessive pay among chief executives and excessive numbers of middle management, and that local authorities are not offering value for money. So the important thing is that all authorities will put this online. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the Portsmouth, Great Yarmouth and Norfolk authorities have not put these amounts online. I hope that she and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) will urge them to do so.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that. I know that Great Yarmouth’s authority is set to go live with this online in January. Does he agree that having the new transparency in place will mean that voluntary sector organisations and small businesses across the country will have a much more even playing field when bidding for contracts?

Yes, and we will be taking this a step further: not only will voluntary organisations be able to compare the costs and the spending, and the public will be able to judge those, but in the new localism Bill we will give voluntary organisations the right to bid for services and to run them directly if they can produce them better and more cheaply than local authorities.

What plans does the Secretary of State have to encourage local authorities to publish the expenditure that they are undertaking on big society projects? If he has plans to scope out that expenditure, could that report contain a particular section on funding for citizens advice bureaux? The representations that I am receiving suggest that they are going to get a hammering as a result of his funding settlement.

They should not get a hammering, as that would be foolish of local authorities. That applies whether the authority is Labour, Liberal Democrat, Conservative or hung; it applies to councils of whatever colour. If local authorities seek to deal with this country’s financial crisis by simply paring back on grants, salami slicing and taking X% out of all departments, they will fail. They have to restructure, they have to change and they have to share services. If they do not do that, they will rue the day when they cut back on Citizens Advice and similar voluntary organisations.

On the issue of reporting expenditure to central Government, and pursuant to the Secretary of State’s previous answer about protecting the front line, has Westminster council informed him of its intention to close a disability centre that provides luncheon facilities and a hydrotherapy pool to many severely disabled people, many of whom are also losing their levels of care services, as they, too, are being retrenched?

I will look into that issue and write to the hon. Lady. I have to say that Westminster council has a fantastic record in dealing with vulnerable people, but I will look into the specific case.